August 25, 2019

The Story That Moved Me to Write

Mark Schiff and his father

I didn’t think I wanted to be a weekly columnist until I read a column by comedian Mark Schiff. I’ve never told him this, but I’ll tell him now.

In August 2006, I had just moved with my kids to the Pico-Robertson neighborhood when, on a whim, I decided to write a column about our new life in this very Jewish ’hood. It was a one-off, just something to get out of my system, but the Journal asked whether I could do it weekly. I agreed to try, but I wasn’t sure my heart would be in it, week after week.

Then I read this poignant column by Mark Schiff. It was about his father who had died of cancer years earlier. Let me share some highlights.

When Mark found out his father was ill, he spent a lot of time in New York, where his parents lived.

“One of the good things about being a road comic is you can live anywhere and book yourself out of wherever you are,” he wrote. “Road comics have no office. So New York became my base.”

His father loved watching him perform.

“He thought I was the funniest person in the world,” Mark wrote. “I guess you are the funniest person in the world if someone thinks you are. My dad and mom came to see me at least a hundred times before he died in 1988. He would come and see me wherever I was doing a show. And he always got dressed up for the show.”

The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.

“The column had this matter-of-fact tone. No melodrama. Just a heartfelt reflection of how a comedy career helped Mark forge a special bond with his father.”

But there was a singular moment later in the column that especially moved me. Before we get to it, here is how the story unfolded:

“I remember when my dad had just gotten out of a hospice, and they sent him back home to die. The night he came home, I had a show to do. I said, ‘Dad, maybe I should stay home instead.’ He wouldn’t hear of it. ‘You go and be funny.’ I did.

“About three days later, I had this gig about two hours away in upstate New York. That afternoon, we were all sitting at the dining room table when my dad said in the weakest of voices, ‘Can I come with you tonight? I’d really like to see your show.’

“I knew what he was saying. He was saying: ‘I really want to see you one more time before I die.’ ”

This was the moment when I lost control of those little drops that sometimes come out of our eyes:

“So off we headed to my gig. It was a cold winter night, and a light snow fell for most of the drive. We didn’t talk much on the way up. As I remember, my dad slept most of the way, anyway. I kept looking at him as he slept in the car. I cried most of the way up, but that was OK; I was with my dad.”

For a while, I couldn’t get that image out of my mind. A father and a son on a long, quiet winter drive at night, the father all dressed up to see his son perform one last time.

The father seemed to know he had just enough strength to see one more show, so he slept during the drive to conserve his energy. For the comedian-son, the only way to honor the moment was to cry.

It was a final show of fatherly love; a last effort to get joy and laughter from a son. And the son was preparing to deliver. 

A few weeks after reading the column, I bumped into Mark at the local Coffee Bean. I didn’t know him well. Our kids went to the same school and I would run into him here and there.

“I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father.”

It didn’t matter. I spoke to him like a best friend. I wanted him to know that his story made me choke up, that I couldn’t stop thinking about that long, quiet drive with his father. I was in full Sephardic, over-the-top mode.

Mark, in his signature dry tone, just replied, “Hey, thank you.”

What I didn’t tell him that day in the fall of 2006 was that his story touched me deeply as a son and as a father, and that it moved me to come up with stories and ideas of my own that would also touch others.

So, from that day on, I never stopped writing.

Happy Father’s Day.